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It's almost impossible to go to sleep on your own terms these days. If you are a light sleeper, there is no dearth of things that could disturb your sleep, be it the ruckus in your neighbour's house, the yowling cats outside or the flickering street lights outside your bedroom window. Sleep scientists call such light and noise disturbances environmental stimuli. They cause sleep-wake disturbances, disrupting your sound sleep. Here are some reasons why you are waking up many times during the night. When sleep is impaired, it paves way for potentially harmful health effects such as increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, weakened immune system, memory deficits, mood problems and elevated stress responses.
How light impairs sleep
Most people find it difficult to drift into peaceful sleep without the lights turned off. There's a reason for it. Light is the main environmental signal that helps in synchronising our body clocks. Early morning exposure to sunlight can advance the circadian phase and late evening exposure delays it. The human body considers light as a signal to wake up and darkness as a cue to fall asleep. Any disturbances in this pattern can disrupt melatonin product and restful sleep.1
How noise impairs sleep
Noise is another environmental factor that disrupts sleep. Ambient noise sources like air, road and rail traffic; sounds of neighbours talking; church bells etc. can greatly impact the quality of your sleep. Studies suggest that exposure to noises during night time is associated with cardiovascular problems and strokes in the elderly.12
What are eye masks and earplugs?
To block out these environmental stimuli, experts recommend using an eye mask and a pair of earplugs. Studies suggest that these sleep aids may abate the effects of noise and lights and help improve the quality of sleep. An eye mask is made of dark-coloured fabric pads for the eyes that are held together with an elastic strap at the back. It blocks out all light stimuli in the environment. Similarly, earplugs are small blocks made of a pliable material to be inserted into the ears. It helps in blocking out sounds to a large extent.
Can eye masks and ear plugs help you sleep better?
In 2010, researchers published a study3 titled "Effects of earplugs and eye masks on nocturnal sleep, melatonin and cortisol in a simulated intensive care unit environment" in the journal Critical Care. Fourteen subjects underwent a sleep study. They were given earplugs and eye masks to be worn during sleep and were exposed to light and noise stimuli during the test. Their urine sample was analysed to check for melatonin and cortisol levels. After this, the subjects rated their sleep quality, anxiety levels and their perception of environmental stimuli.
The results were encouraging. Earplugs and ear masks were shown to promote sleep and hormone balance in the subjects of the study, which made the researchers conclude that both the tools should be used for better sleep.
If you live where there is no escaping noise and light disturbances during the night, you should invest in these sleeping aids. They are inexpensive and effective. When combined with other sleeping aids such as footbath, essential oils and white noise, they help in reducing the disturbances caused by the environmental stimuli and promote better sleep.
1. Bano, M., Chiaromanni, F., Corrias, M., Turco, M., De Rui, M., Amodio, P., Montagnese, S. (2014). The Influence of Environmental Factors on Sleep Quality in Hospitalized Medical Patients. Frontiers in Neurology, 5, 267. http://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2014.00267
2. Hume, K. I., Brink, M., & Basner, M. (2012). Effects of environmental noise on sleep. Noise and Health, 14(61), 297.
3. Hu, R., Jiang, X., Zeng, Y., Chen, X., & Zhang, Y. (2010). Effects of earplugs and eye masks on nocturnal sleep, melatonin and cortisol in a simulated intensive care unit environment. Critical Care, 14(2), R66. http://doi.org/10.1186/cc8965
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